The first four years of the seventies were all fine years for Rock & Roll. Perhaps they lacked some of the color and imagination of the sixties’ key span from 1966 through 1968, but with groundbreaking records like All Things Must Pass, Who’s Next, Exile on Main Street, Bryter Layter, Talking Book, Ziggy Stardust, Quadrophenia, The Dark Side of the Moon, and Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, there were still a lot of exciting new things coming from rock’s old guard.
Then came 1974. Precisely one decade after the British Invasion broke, its original invaders, who’d been carrying the seventies so far, all seemed to flag in unison. We can excuse those who didn’t put out any new product that year (McCartney, The Who). Those who did were not offering up their best work. The Rolling Stones released a new album on which they seemed exasperated with having to put forth the idea that Rock & Roll still means something. That it was still one of the year’s best, if only by default, speaks to the quality dip plaguing 1974.
Yet that quality dip is important because it gives the music history books a handy leaping off point for the necessity of the punk movement that would flush out the old guard in a couple of years (so does the preponderance of soft pap polluting the airwaves: Al Wilson’s “Show and Tell”, Barbara Streisand’s “The Way We Were”, Terry Jacks’s “Seasons in the Sun”, John Denvers’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders”, Ray Stevens’s “The Streak”, Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love”, Olivia Newton-John’s “I Honestly Love You”… for the love of all things good, please bring on The Ramones!). And look, there was good music in ’74, if not an excess of great music. Here are ten of the year’s keepers.
10. I’ve Got My Own Album to Do by Ron Wood
On the cusp of the collapse of The Faces and his recruitment into The Rolling Stones, Ron Wood went into the studio with a few buddies and a few bottles and cut a characteristically sloppy solo record. Surprisingly, I’ve Got My Own Album to Do wound up being more than a bundle of drunken jams. “Am I Grooving You” may be a dumb lyric slapped onto a lazy guitar lick and “Crotch Music” may marry a dumb title with dated jazz-rock fusion, but there are a surprising number of quality songs on this record. Wood duets with future führer Mick Jagger on “I Can Feel the Fire”, getting the record off to a rousing start (although it would turn into an even fierier item during live performances with The Faces), but the ballads may provide the most memorable moments of I’ve Got My Own Album to Do. “Far East Man”, co-written with George Harrison, is gorgeously reeling, and “Mystifies Me”, on which Wood goes pipe to ravaged pipe with Rod Stewart, is a lovely, ragged, countrified love song. Stewart also steps in to give a little boost to the Chuck Berry-esque rocker “Take a Look at the Guy” and mask Wood’s drunkenly tuneless delivery of “If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody”, but this remains Wood’s show all the way through.
9. Walls and Bridges by John Lennon
One might have expected John Lennon to crawl out of his infamous “Lost Weekend” period when he was separated from Yoko Ono and subsisting on a steady diet of drugs, booze, and partying with a record of harrowing self-exorcisms like John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Instead, he came up with his most commercially viable LP since Imagine three years earlier. “Bless You” and “#9 Dream” are two of the sweetest examples of John Lennon the cosmic romantic. His pain is apparent on intense songs such as “Going Down on Love”, “Scared”, “Steel and Glass”, and “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)”, but his own production is so polished and rich that even a track that snarls “I’ll scratch your back and you knife mine” sounds ripe for the hit parade. Indeed, Lennon did invade that often-elusive parade with (believe it or not) his very first number-one hit single, though the conspicuous presence of super-star Elton John didn’t hurt the ascension of the invigorating “Whatever Gets You Through the Night”. That would be his last number one and Walls and Bridges would be his last LP of original material until the tragedy-sullied Double Fantasy six years later.
8. It’s Only Rock ’n Roll by The Rolling Stones
After the critics hammered Goats Head Soup for its uneven selection of songs and murkiness, the Stones dealt with one of those issues by cutting long-time producer Jimmy Miller loose. Although Miller was behind the band’s best loved albums (Beggars Banquet through Exile on Main Street), he did seem to be losing the plot a bit on Goats Head. The first Rolling Stones production credited to “The Glimmer Twins” (ie: Mick and Keith) does benefit from a renewed clarity. The inconsistent song quality continues. Certainly a factor was Mick and Keith’s continued lack of focus, as the former seemed primarily interested in jet setting and the latter’s drug use was finally seriously getting in the way of his music making. Mick attempted to make light of it all by declaring, “It’s Only Rock ’n Roll”, thus scoring the Stones’ defining genre its most noncommittal anthem. Keith didn’t even play on the track, which goes back to the old Chuck Berry well once again. It’s Only Rock ’n Roll is least interesting when the guys rest on their laurels like that. When stretching themselves to forge some grungy reggae (“Luxury”), barrelhouse blues (“Short and Curlies”), Philly funk (the paranoid “Fingerprint File”, which dances on a superb Mick Taylor bassline), or jazzy mood music (the epic, gorgeous, and disarmingly self-aware “Time Waits for No One”, another jaw-dropping Taylor showcase), The Rolling Stones reveal that they haven’t given up completely. Mick Taylor’s failure to get co-writing credit on things like “Time Waits for No One” and “Till the Next Goodbye” would cause him to give up after It’s Only Rock ’n Roll. A full-commitment to self-parody was just around the corner.
7. Country Life by Roxy Music
In a weird way, Bryan Ferry was the pop star Mick Jagger couldn’t bring himself to be in 1974. While Mick tried to keep up his guttersnipe image despite spending most of his time rubbing elbows with the upper crust, Ferry had no qualms about presenting himself as a tuxedoed, martini-sipping, posh-o. With Roxy Music, Ferry also made the kind of on-edge, forward-thrust Rock & Roll Jagger feared was slipping from his fingers. There are no Chuck Berry clichés on Country Life, though “The Thrill of It All” and “All I Want Is You” have all the momentum of “Too Much Monkey Business”. But these rockers are only a taste of Roxy Music’s music, which is a heady mélange of sounds archaic (the medieval “Triptych”), traditional (the swinging “If It Takes All Night”), futuristic (the new wavy “Out of the Blue”), and shockingly unlikely (the Kurt Weil-esque nightmare “Bitter-Sweet”).
6. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis
Genesis’s unwieldy prog rock and Peter Gabriel’s theatrical pretentions gel gloriously on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. More power to you if you can figure out this double-album’s storyline (something about a teenage delinquent going on an erotic Lewis Carroll adventure in the NYC underground), but the songs and sparkling musicianship ring through clearly. As a whole, The Lambs Lies Down is an overwhelming experience. What makes it go down easy is the plethora of powerful, concise songs, such as “Fly on a Windshield”, “Carpet Crawlers”, “It”, the title track, and the magnificent “Back in N.Y.C.” The latter two tracks make the most mesmerizing use of synthesizers on a rock album this side of The Who. Gabriel plays equally striking on his vocal instrument, twisting it electronically and physically to heighten the phantasmagoria of tracks such as “The Grand Parade of Lifeless P” and “The Colony of Slipperman.Arriv”.
5. Starless and Bible Black by King Crimson
For the hardcore prog fan, an album like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway delivers everything you could ever want: an indecipherable storyline, audacious theatrics, puzzling time changes, plenty of Mellotron. King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black has those last two elements in spades, but it also has something that most typical prog records don’t: fury. Prog is generally thought of as something to be listened to studiously through headphones while sitting cross-legged on the floor of a darkened room as incense burns on the bookshelf. Starless and Bible Black does have its moments where that kind of listening is totally appropriate: the exquisite, soul-stirring “The Night Watch” (a song about Rembrandt that makes good on all of prog’s intellectual pretensions) and the instrumental “Trio” and the first minute and-a-half of “Lament”. But then that song changes, becomes unhinged noise for thrashing around in your straight-jacket to. “The Great Deceiver” is an adrenaline-rush that could pass for punk if it wasn’t so absurdly complex. Even the extended improvisations “Starless and Bible Black” and “Fracture” are as cacophonous and heavy as they are prog ethereal. That Kurt Cobain allegedly loved King Crimson is often tossed out as a way of defending them to prog-skeptics, but I don’t think that’s really necessary. All you really have to do is listen to this fucking album.
4. Radio City by Big Star
Noise, Mellotrons, crazed ideas, jerky rhythms. No, this is not another King Crimson album but one by the best pure-pop champions of the early seventies. When self-consciousness was dominating the rock scene with complex prog and everyday-is-Halloween glam in 1972, Big Star let loose with #1 Record, which reveled in Beatlesque harmony and jangle and early-Stones raunch. And it didn’t have a song longer than four and a half minutes. Alex Chilton was more ambitious than that, as we learn from listening to the second Big Star record. Radio City finds him dominating after the departure of the unfailingly pop-savvy Chris Bell and indulging in some of his stranger whims. The perfection of #1 Record is starting to unglue with the rambling, epic-for-Big Star “O My Soul”, the shambling beat and off-key harmonica of “Life is White”, the creepy crawling “Daisy Glaze”, and the eerie and rough solo pieces that close the album. Radio City also delivers some of Big Star’s most perfect moments, like the woozy ballad “What’s Going Ahn”, the rolling “You Get What You Deserve”, the Stonesy “Mod Lang”, and the Revolver-esque “She’s a Mover”. That perfection comes to an exhilarating head with “September Gurls”, possibly the decade’s most heart-breaking piece of power pop. Radio City’s collision of sloppy experimentation and superbly crafted pop is its great charm. Chilton would lose his handle on that latter element with Big Star’s next album.
3. Exotic Birds and Fruit by Procol Harum
After their opening run of four brilliant albums, Procol Harum started rambling a bit with the unfocused Broken Barricades. They started getting back on track with the fine Grand Hotel, but really outdid themselves with 1974’s Exotic Birds and Fruit. This sounds like Procol’s bid for world domination, a flawlessly crafted pop album replete with great songs and the most professional production of any of their albums (thanks to Chris Thomas). Consequently, Exotic Birds lacks the personality of Procol’s earlier LPs (including the inferior Broken Barricades) but more than makes up for that with great material expertly performed. Whether rocking out (“Nothing But the Truth”, the rescued early song “Monsieur R. Monde”, “Butterfly Boys”), stretching beyond Rock & Roll (the Weil-esque “Beyond the Pale”, the abstract “Thin End of the Wedge”), rollicking (“Fresh Fruit”), or recapturing the classic classical Procol sound (“New Lamps for Old”, “The Idol”, the indescribably passionate and poignant “As Strong As Samson”), the band nails it every time.
2. Veedon Fleece by Van Morrison
Veedon Fleece finds Van Morrison similarly reinvigorated, but for opposite reasons. While Exotic Birds and Fruit was a work of consummate professionalism, Van Morrison’s latest album found him tumbling back into the insular experimentation of Astral Weeks after the string of polished and poppy albums that began with Moondance. Veedon Fleece isn’t quite as far out as Astral Weeks, but it’s first side—beginning with the misty “Fair Play” and climaxing with the stark and wild “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River” —comes damn close. Side B is leaner, but even here Morrison let’s his soul go wild, hitting top-of-his-range improvs on the flop single “Bulbs” and unleashing weird growls and a gut-ripping primal scream at the top of the otherwise cheery “Cul De Sac”. Morrison then went into recording retreat for three years, reemerging with the slicker sound of A Period of Transition and continuing in that vein for much of the rest of his career, leaving Veedon Fleece as a worthy bookend companion to Astral Weeks, enclosing his most vital period.
1. Fear by John Cale
After Lou Reed booted John Cale from The Velvet Underground in 1968, Cale wasted little time getting on with his work, producing Nico’s terrifying The Marble Index and The Stooges’ classic debut the following year. In 1970 he recorded his first solo album, a collaboration with minimalist composer Terry Riley heavy on extended, instrumental, jazz-like workouts. Church of Anthrax would not be issued until 1971, a year after Cale released Vintage Violence, a solo debut dominated by relatively straight-forward singer-songwriter material influenced by The Band. These two records—both interesting yet flawed—indicated that Cale’s solo career would take a mercurial path, but neither hinted at the confidence and variety he’d achieve on 1974’s Fear. Strong in voice and composition on each of the album’s nine tracks, Cale produced an album that deserves classic status. The record commences its seduction with “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend”, which starts off as a Bowie-esque, piano-based pop song before climaxing with frenzied bass noise and paranoid primal shrieks. It’s bracing, scary stuff and a sharp contrast to the deliberate, choral beauty of “Buffalo Ballet”, which follows. A reggae-tinged rhythm lays the groundwork of “Barracuda”, but Cale provides the hooks with his mumbled melody, circusy organ fills, and screechy viola solo. “Emily” is an expansive, gorgeous ballad, and —like “Buffalo Ballet”, “Barracuda”, and the soulful “You Know More Than I Know”— makes very tasteful use of female backing singers (a real rarity in the mid-seventies!). “Ships of Fools” is woozy and romantic with a sparkling arrangement that conceals a creepily Gothic lyric. Rolling along on a strolling rhythm, “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy” is as funny as it sounds. Critics tend to compare this number to The Beach Boys, although to my ears, it sounds more like a lift of Van Morrison’s “Straight to Your Heart (Like a Cannonball)”. The album’s centerpiece is the eight-minute stomp “Gun”, a sweaty-palmed tale of a criminal on the run (later covered to great effect by Siouxsie and the Banshees). Lou Reed may have gotten all the press with his solo career, but I’ve never heard him do anything as accomplished as Fear on his own.